“Mother are guest editing the February issue of Creative Review and are offering one page for anyone to ‘express themselves’. Highest bidder wins a page of this creative magazine to express their creativity in any way they want. You give us some of your cash, we’ll give you one of our pages. Your page will be seen by 100,000 people. Please submit your artwork by Thursday 21 December 2006. No company logos, no adverts, no Danish cartoons.”
This was the copy that went up on eBay on 7 December 2006. Editorial pages in a magazine are held to be sacrosanct – the one thing that cannot be bought. That’s the theory anyway, but what with all the advertorials, special promotions, “brought to you bys” and ad-gets in the average issue of the average magazine, cynics among you may rightfully scoff at the notion. Nevertheless, it does endure.
So, as part of Mother’s guest editorship of our February issue, they wondered what would happen if we were to make one of these precious pages available to the highest bidder. The theme, after all, was to be “selling your soul” and the ethical dilemmas that we all face, so why not break one of the big taboos in publishing? How would people react to this morally bankrupt act? Would they condemn us or rush to grab their chance of glory? Would a rival ad agency use it to embarrass Mother? Would anyone even care?
We didn’t want one of our regular advertisers snapping it up – how boring would that be? – so we asked for “no logos, no adverts”. And we didn’t want to commit ourselves to printing anything that would prompt a lawsuit or a fatwah thanks very much. Other than that, the winner would have totally free reign. As for what we would do with any money the auction might bring in, we never decided, for the simple reason that we didn’t know if there would be any. We’d discussed using it to fund more of the “free stuff” in the issue – there are two A1 posters, and a Peter Saville sticker in each copy – as already the costs of these things (paid for by Mother) were beginning to assume eye-watering proportions and they’d just come up with an idea to do a page covered in tiny price stickers. Estimated at £10,000. We also discussed giving the money to charity, but both Mother and CR help charities in other ways (such as our support for Cancer Research UK’s Sound and Vision auction, please buy a ticket if you can, plug, plug), and this issue was supposed to be about selling out, not being good.
Whatever we were to do with the money, we didn’t want to state it at the outset as it would have undermined the apparently amoral nature of the exercise – “we’re auctioning this page for charity” or “all proceeds go towards producing a free poster for every reader” puts a whole different slant on things. If this issue was to be about selling out, then we wanted to sell-out good and proper on this one.
Thanks to posts on MagCulture, our own site and Newstoday, almost immediately the page went up, the bloggers started to have their say. We were hit with “why isn’t this for charity?” straight away. Someone else accused us of being “lazy” – as if we couldn’t be bothered to think of anything to put on the page so we just thought “fuck it, let’s just stick the thing on eBay”. The problem with printed magazines is having too much content for the available space, not too little.
Some thought we were doing this as some way of personally enriching ourselves (not a bad idea come to think of it…) while others wearily dismissed it as “just another gimmick”. There was also a lot of whingeing to the effect that only the rich would be able to get their work in the magazine and what about helping young designers? – ignoring the fact that we have spent the last 27 years promoting new talent in the pages of the magazine without it costing them a penny. One of the more charitable posters assumed we were experimenting with a radical new revenue model, which I would like to claim was the case but wasn’t. Perhaps it would be possible to fund a magazine in this way – does anyone know if it’s been tried?
Thanks to all this debate, the bids rose rapidly in the first few days. Soon, the price had topped £1000, finally peaking at £1120. We were starting to wonder where all this was going to end – the sticker page suddenly looked like a go-er – and then nothing. No more bids. The initial enthusiasm dissipated and, thanks to a deadline too close to Christmas, we got no more offers. We emailed the winner, Gemmy Harris, repeatedly, but she never got back to us. She had no bid history, we couldn’t trace her. Running out of time, we tried the runner-up who, quite reasonably pleading that this was all a bit late in the day, offered us half the money. We hummed and haahed and decided to give it one more go on a “buy it now” basis. No response, except for some stroppy buyer feedback from Ms Harris accusing us of operating “a scam” and stating, somewhat presumptuously, “money doesn’t go to charity”. Was she a saboteur? Saboteuse? Person engaged in sabotage?
Whatever, we couldn’t sell the page. Ms Harris’ devious plan – if that’s what it was – had worked. There would be no sticker page.
We tried to drag you with us through the gutter and you weren’t having it. Not for the price originally offered anyhow. Maybe some things can’t be sold.
The February issue of CR, guest-edited by Mother, is out now. See www.creativereview.co.uk